Thursday, May 29

Finally - UN Visas Approved

Myanmar's military rulers have approved visas for dozens of international relief workers and were allowing more foreigners into areas devastated by a cyclone that left millions in need of aid, the United Nations said Thursday.

It was an apparent sign that the isolationist regime planned to keep its promise to allow in humanitarian workers from all countries and give them access to the Irrawaddy delta, which took the brunt of the cyclone that landed May 2.

The last 45 pending visas were granted to U.N. staffers, while Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. Children's Fund have sent more than 14 workers in recent days into the delta region, a U.N. statement said.

Japan, which has so far donated $13 million in aid, sent a 23-member medical team to the country Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said in Tokyo.

"I went to some areas where no international relief personnel had been to, and the priorities for these people are food and shelter. We're going to be working very hard to deliver these items to them," Tony Banbury, regional head of the U.N. World Food Program, told AP Television News Thursday.

The storm left an estimated 2.4 million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care, according to the U.N. Myanmar's government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing.

Myanmar's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weaken the junta's grip on power. The generals also don't want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the U.S. that the junta has long treated as a hostile power.

They only allowed foreign aid workers in after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last weekend.

But state-run media took a swipe at the foreign aid on Thursday, saying that people in the delta could survive on "fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields and on protein-rich fish from the rivers" if they could not get "bars of chocolate donated by the international community."

Commentary in the Myanma Ahlin newspaper said that while the country welcomed international aid, "Myanmar people are self-reliant and can stand on their own without foreign assistance."

While not naming the agency, the article slammed a monetary institution, saying its refusal to extend loans or financial aid to cyclone victims was "an act of inhumanity."

While garnering some praise for opening up to the international aid community, global powers have voiced outrage at a decision by the government to extend the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi just days after donors pledged large sums of money to help the cyclone victims.

Several countries, including the United States, Britain and France, issued biting statements about the regime's order to keep the Nobel peace laureate under house arrest for a sixth year.

"This measure testifies to the junta's absence of will to cooperate with the international community," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.

He called on Myanmar's government to "free without delay" Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and opposition members being held. Suu Kyi has been held for more than 12 of the past 18 years, becoming a symbol of the junta's intolerance of dissent.

Many nations critical of Myanmar's abuses had put politics aside to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Representatives from 50 nations pledged up to $150 million Sunday, while remaining quiet about Suu Kyi's plight.

The regime considers its biggest threat to be Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's martyred independence leader, Gen. Aung San. She was awarded her Nobel prize in 1991 for her nonviolent attempts at promoting democracy and is widely popular.

Under Myanmar law, people deemed security threats can be detained for a maximum of five years without trial. The regime has not officially announced its decision to extend Suu Kyi's detention or explain why it is violating its own law. An official confirmed the extension, but insisted on not being quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Wednesday, May 21

Chris Beyrer in the Boston Globe Calls For Intervention

THE UNITED NATIONS estimates that more than 100,000 people may have been killed in the devastating cyclone in Burma and that some 220,000 are reported missing. But approaching three weeks after the storm, some 75 percent of the 3 million or more severely affected have yet to receive any food, water, shelter, medication for the sick, or means of escape from flooded regions. The Burmese junta has denied access for the delivery of humanitarian aid to all but a handful of outsiders.

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    The next wave of dying is already underway, from thirst, starvation, untreated injuries, and infectious diseases. Major health threats for survivors include water-borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and e. coli; food-borne diseases from eating poor or rotten food, compounded by the lack of cooking fuel and equipment; and the mosquito-borne diseases malaria and dengue fever, now compounded by the huge numbers of people sleeping outside and surrounded by water.

    The international community is at a crucial moment of choice: Should the sovereignty of a regime bent on self-preservation trump the lives of those hundreds of thousands of civilians who are in serious peril because of its life-threatening actions?

    Under the new doctrine of the "responsibility to protect," unanimously adopted by the General Assembly and Security Council, inherent in each state's sovereignty is a corresponding duty to protect one's own citizens from the most serious of human-rights abuses, including crimes against humanity. If a state is either unwilling or unable to protect its own citizens, the international community has an obligation to step in.

    By its policy choices, the Burmese junta is magnifying the extent of the tragedy in a manner that is designed to sacrifice its own people on the altar of its very survival. Such conduct presents a prima facie case of crimes against humanity, under the category of so-called "other inhumane acts" intentionally causing great suffering or death. So far, Burma's allies on the Security Council, including China, Russia, and South Africa, have protected the junta from a robust international response.

    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon travels to Burma tomorrow to press the regime for greater access. Nevertheless, he has yet to receive any response from General Than Shwe to his calls and letters. ASEAN foreign ministers met Monday and issued a statement claiming that Burma agreed to allow swift access. But the international community should not be fooled by symbolic gestures from the junta such as approving nine helicopters from the World Food Program to fly in relief or granting visas to dozens of aid workers from surrounding countries. Progress is being made at a snail's pace in comparison to the massive need. What is required now is both a massive inflow of supplies and the expert aid workers needed to deliver relief on the scale this storm demands.

    While these political discussions drag on and millions suffer, the junta is using the tragedy to its every advantage. ASEAN is now hosting what the Burmese have described as a "reconstruction" conference in Rangoon on Sunday. Yet how can one talk about reconstruction before the most basic needs of the people have yet to be met? And holding this conference on the same day that the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi must be extended will no doubt be spun in junta propaganda as expressions of international approval for their policies.

    If Ban and ASEAN cannot persuade the junta to yield in swift and meaningful ways then the United States, United Kingdom, and France need to press for a multilateral intervention supporting countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore in delivering massive quantities of aid, which Burma has purportedly agreed to allow. Such an Asian intervention should be less threatening than a Western one. But an intervention with or without the support of the junta is desperately needed.

    While the Burmese junta has no qualms about sacrificing its own people, to stand idly by as thousands suffer and die would leave all of us with blood on our hands.


    Chris Beyrer, a medical epidemiologist, directs the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University. Jared Genser is president of Freedom Now and attorney for Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Burma.

    Monday, May 19

    France Calls UN "Cowards" Says Junta Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

    French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Monday countries on the U.N. Security Council that did not agree to pressure Myanmar into opening its doors to foreign aid were guilty of “cowardice”.

    France has tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council that Myanmar’s military rulers should let aid reach the victims of Cyclone Nargis under a “responsibility to protect” principle recognised in a 2005 U.N. resolution on armed conflicts.

    China, Russia, Vietnam and South Africa have opposed Council involvement in what they say is a humanitarian, not a political issue.

    “We denounce the impending death of thousands more civilians, and we are accused of meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” Kouchner, who founded medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, said in an opinion piece in newspaper Le Monde.

    Kouchner recognised that a U.N. resolution enshrining the “responsibility to protect” was only passed with armed conflicts in mind, and therefore did not apply to Myanmar, where the cyclone hit two weeks ago, leaving 134,000 dead and missing.

    Instead he cited a 1988 resolution which states that leaving the victims of natural disasters without humanitarian assistance “constitutes a threat to human life and an offence to human dignity” and invites states in need of help to facilitate the work of aid groups.

    “This is indeed a fundamental human right,” Kouchner said.

    “International policy, the morality of extreme emergency demand that it be respected. The member states of the Security Council could only shy away from it at the cost of cowardice,” he added.

    Kouchner’s comments were written before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said on Monday Myanmar would accept medical workers from southeast Asian countries and was ready to accept international aid agencies.

    Humanitarian agencies say the death toll of Nargis, one of the most devastating cyclones to hit Asia, could soar without a massive increase of emergency food, water shelter and medicine to the worst-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta.

    France has sent a warship with around 1,000 tonnes of humanitarian equipment to the waters off the delta, but it has not received permission from the junta to deliver the aid.

    Myanmar’s U.N. envoy accused France on Friday of sending a “warship,” a charge the French ambassador denied. France has said the junta is on the verge of a “crime against humanity”.

    Tuesday, May 13

    What Is Happening To The Aid?

    According to many sources inside Burma, what little aid is being allowed into the country is being confiscated by the generals and then some portion of it is either being sold to the people at outlandishly inflated prices or an inferior substitute is being put in its place while the original aid is kept for the generals and their families or those loyal to them.

    A Rangoon resident said military trucks had come to Nyaungpinlay market in the city to sell instant noodle packets, but no one had bought them. In Bogalay, you can buy raincoats donated by the UN, as many as you like for 8000 [kyat]. Rolls of tarpaulin can be bought in Bogalay’s Chinatown for 100,000 a roll. Merchants bought all 100 rolls straight away,” he said.

    “A shopkeeper who sold food to refugees in Bogalay on 4 May asked soldiers from Battalion 66 to help her keep order, but the soldiers took away all her merchandise and did not return it,” he went on. “Soldiers also took away all the goods from a boat that docked in Bogalay harbour after the storm and then sold them in the market four or five days later.”

    National League for Democracy spokesperson U Nyan Win said party members had seen foreign relief supplies on sale in a Rangoon market. “Our storm relief committee went to buy quite a lot of towels from Mingalar market to donate them to refugees,” he said.

    “When we looked at them back in the office, they were labeled ‘WFP’ and had a Japanese flag in the middle with ‘Donated by the people of Japan’ written underneath.” Nyan Win stressed the government’s duty to ensure relief supplies get to the people who need them most.

    It is a hard thing to say that we should not make donations in such an emergency. But we certainly should not make donations through the usual channels. Why? Because it only further empowers the thugs who currently hold the lives of millions in their greedy fists.

    If we make contributions it should be through established NGOs that are already on the ground in Myanmar with a proven track record of getting aid to people in distress.


    Friday, May 9

    Finally, Some Good News

    While the UN, Red Cross, and others are having a terrible time getting into the nation of Burma because of the recalcitrance of the military junta, World Vision has already begun distributing things necessary for survival.

    If you would like to make a difference, there is an organization that is already in Myanmar on the ground. They can give genuine help rather than simply further lining the pockets of the Tatmadaw.

    Click Here. In just the last few days, they've distributed over 38 tons of rice and 4,500 gallons of fresh water, making a life-or-death difference for over 100,000 people.

    P.S. In addition to a one-time gift, the most powerful way you can help is by sponsoring a child in need in Myanmar. There are children waiting for a sponsor like you — especially now. Please prayerfully consider becoming a Myanmar child sponsor today.

    World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice.


    When Beggars Can Be Choosers

    The UN finally reached the end of its rope with the Burmese generals who are holding their nation hostage in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is getting worse with each passing hour. On Friday the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) suspended aid to cyclone-devastated Myanmar (Burma) after the generals stole the food and disaster relief materials sent there by the UN. The WFP referred to the action of the military in Myanmar as "unprecedented."

    WFP officials said they have “no choice” but to suspend their aid efforts following the unprecedented seizure by the secretive military government.

    According to Irrawaddy, "Meanwhile, the regime’s TV is spending large amounts of time broadcasting 'vote yes' propaganda on the constitutional referendum on Saturday. Well-known singers and actors were shown in one spot dancing and singing while urging people to vote yes.”

    Where is the outrage?

    Meanwhile the same thugs who supported the generals back in October by clubbing and mugging the monks are now doing the same with relief workers who have not been hand-picked by Than Shwe.

    Again, according to the Irrawaddy newspaper, "A convoy of vehicles carrying rice to cyclone victims in Rangoon’s Thanlyin Township was attacked on Thursday by armed members of Swan-Ar-Shin, a government-supported organization that helped suppress last September’s demonstrations, one Rangoon source reported. The attackers were armed with clubs and knives, the source said."

    One NGO worker said permission had to be obtained from another pro-government organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association [USDA], before relief supplies could be delivered.


    We Should Be Angry!

    The last time I was in Myanmar, the kind folks of that country were not being allowed to read this blog. The government has determined that it is not in the best interests of the regime there for folks to read this. So, along with pornography, the government censors such things as the internet and the free distribution of ideas.

    There is an unelected "government" in Burma that, having usurped power from the elected government, is afraid of its own people. They are afraid of what people will think of them if they hear anything other than the official version of the truth. We should therefore not be surprised -- saddened, yes, but not surprised -- when we learn that the military government of Burma is now keeping food and other aid from its own citizens. Why? The only reason that one can give with these men is that it would make them look weaker in the eyes of their own citizens and would strengthen the resolve of the Burmese people to look elsewhere than their military for relief from the oppression of such calamities as Nargis.

    But if the people see their own government for the cowards and weaklings that they are (weaklings with guns are still quite formidable, as the monks found out last October), then they will look to other options than keeping the Tatmadaw and Nasakha. The military disarmed most opposition groups during the 1960s and 70s. Now they are keeping food from those disarmed citizens.

    Whatever else one may think of the UN or its World Food Programme, it is necessary to realize that there was a lot of high-energy food left sitting on the tarmac at Yangon's Mingaladon airport. But it was not the UN's fault. The Tatmadaw does not want anyone else but their own members handing out the food. This is because they would lose face in the eyes of the people. The opinion of the people is therefore more important to the military junta of Burma than are the lives of the people.

    When does a government quit being the "powers ordained of God" and show itself to be simply an occupying force of thugs intent upon stealing the food and lives of the people? When it shoots its own citizens and religious leaders? When those being shot have done nothing more than peacefully present their own opinions in the public square? How about when it starves its own citizens?

    General Than Shwe lavished presents on his daughter Thandar at her recent wedding -- gifts estimated by some to be worth over 25 million British pounds. But when it comes to allowing others to give presents to his people so they can survive, he shows himself to be far less generous. Nero reportedly fiddled while Rome burned. Whether that story is true, it surely is the case that Than Shwe is fiddling while Myanmar drowns and starves. Next the disease will begin. Cholera and Typhoid will begin running through the area where the dead bodies lie. The military junta of Burma have little public health understanding even when there is not a disaster. The death toll will mount...while Than Shwe fiddles.

    What can happen? ASEAN can cut off ties to the junta; China can refuse any further aid to the generals (most of their aid is military -- the last thing the Burmese people need right now); the UN can insist that either aid will be distributed or the ruling junta of Myanmar will no longer be recognized as the rightful government of Burma.


    Thursday, May 8

    Information on Cyclone Nargis has been posted daily since the fourth at my other blog: